The youngest fascist. Count Galeazzo Ciano receives a salute from a member of boys' fascist organization. Indoctrination of the youth in the spirit of fascism was an element of the Italian design to subjugate Albania.

On the turn of 1920's and 1930's the Italian penetration of Albania encountered the first obstacles. The first tension between Rome and Tirana occurred in 1931, when king Zog refused to extend the Pacts of Tirana. He had to retreat from that decision under the Italian pressure, but the King of Albanians still was more stubborn, and moreover - consequent, when it came to torpedoing Rome's efforts aimed at the establishment in this "friendly" country of a fascist party after the Italian pattern, and under Italian protection. The attempt to get rid of at least some of Italian specialists and advisers, swarming in the Albanian army, as well as financial and economical institutions, was also unequivocally received in Rome. All that only confirmed in the Italian government the belief that the best solution to the problem would be to swallow Albania. They still were not sure, though, whether it would be better to do it with or without Zogu; by means of total subordination with certain autonomy or just its appearance, or complete annexation; politically and economically, or militarily. As a rule most of the Italian politicians favoured the final solution, it means the occupation of Albania and her incorporation into Italy as another, after the Abyssinian one, jewel in the crown of Victor Emmanuel III. Still Rome was looking for a way, which would grant the achievement of an optimal solution of the Italo-Albanian problem at the lowest possible cost and international risk. No wonder that having assumed such a tactics in the question of the annexation of Albania, some figures responsible for the administration of the Italian state used to come out with quite extraordinary ideas. One of them, of a matrimonial nature, got a remarkable place in the memoirs of the Polish ambassador in Rome of many years, Alfred Wysocki:

The Hungarian ambassador, who was simultaneously accredited in Albania, was leaving there for a secret mission, which he revealed to my discretion. Here Mussolini, interested very much in relationships within Albania, and enforcing his own influence there, first thought about a marriage of the Albanian king with one of the Italian patricians. When that project failed, matchmaking was arranged with the known in the Italian upper crust Hungarian aristocrat, countess M. She was a nice girl, joyful, well-built, well-cultured, and a big supporter of Italy and the fascism. She became friends with the wife of baron Villáni, and was supposed to accompany her during the Hungarian envoy's stay at Durazzo.

Villáni apparently enjoyed the thought that he would make a match to an authentic king. The ruler of Albania was at that time forty-two years old, and was quite popular among the easy-going ladies of Vienna yet from the times when he was a Colonel in the Austro-Hungarian army, and took part in the Great War in its ranks.

- Doesn't it scare you, - I asked Villáni, - that you give a young girl from a good family to the whims of an aging lovelace, a bastard of the Turkish tyrant Jemal Pasha, the hereditary governor of Mati, who personally used to decapitate his enemies? And what about the infamous Albanian intrigues that even Prince Wied could not cope with? And the king's five sisters: Adile, Nafije, Sanije, Ruhije, and Maxhide, accustomed to the absolute rule in the royal palace and jealous of their influence - don't they instil you with any worries?

- The countess, - answered Villáni, - is a brave and smart girl. I am sure she can take care of herself.

Villáni was full of good faith. Very much concerned about his important role, he soon left for Durazzo. King Zogu received him and the accompanying ladies very politely. Yet he apparently did not want to get caught in the web of Villáni's matrimonial plans, because the latter never spoke about them again. Whereas the king next year got married another Hungarian, although without my friend's recommendation, and not as big a fan of the fascism as countess M. [Wysocki A. (1979).]

The fiasco of the aforementioned matrimonial plans had certainly upset the Italian dictator, but the real berserk of his was sparked by something completely different, namely the information coming from diplomats and the intelligence about secret contacts made behind scenes between king Zog, and the political circles of Paris, Belgrade and Athens. Was Albania about to slip away from the so painstakingly weaved web - Mussolini could ask himself? Wasn't it the time to go to war in spite of everything and everybody? No! For that Benito Mussolini was not ready yet. But any of Ahmet Zogu's further independent actions were out of question. In Rome the decisions were made to tighten unconditionally the grip on Albania, and the most appropriate platform of the attack were deemed the economy, finances, and education.

In the beginning of 1937 came to Tirana an Italian specialist in youth movement, Giovanni Giro, who started in Albania - having Zogu's consent but not support - the creation of fascist youth organizations, including the notorious one called Lupi di Roma (Wolves of Rome). Achievements of Giro, who did not need to spare money, involved the youth into an attractive programme of activities, and organized trips to Italy, had bothered the king. Eventually he decided to create his own, nearly state-owned, youth organization called Youth Organization Zog I. It often used to come to clashes, brawls, and street riots between its members and groups controlled by Giro. In all those cases the police intervened quickly and brutally, and directed its impetus against Giro's young amateurs of fascism. However, Giro did not give up and kept working. His pupils grew in numbers, and created cadres, which very soon would prove very useful to the Italians.

Of course Giro did not act alone. His work among the Albanian youth was supported from Rome, mainly through the scholarship policy. Many a young Albanians, especially talented and prospective but poor ones, would attract the attention of Giro's men, who would select them for special scholarships and send them to Italy, where they could start or continue university studies. Sooner or later those people would become ambassadors of the Italian fascism. Upon return to Albania they would lend a lot of services to Rome, very often in good faith, as they believed that this way they were contributing to their own country's advance to a higher level of the civilizational development. The money for the scholarships, as well as many other actions, were coming from the accounts of the already notorious then Society for the Albanian Economic Development (Società per lo Sviluppo dell'Economia Albanese - SVEA). SVEA acted on behalf of the Italian government and its plenipotentiary banks, and supported financially everything that could be of use to the Italians. Not only there were money for tuitions for the young Giro's protegé, but also there were special funds for bribes, which had to furnish them with the highest posts in the political and economical structures of Albania. And those bribes often had to be really big, because by Zogu's order Albanian authorities tried not to admit the Italian-educated Albanians to any significant jobs throughout the country. This fact was often emphasized by the very Albanians, graduates of Italian universities, or their Italian protectors, who complained about their discrimination, as well as ignorance and obscurantism of the Albanian rulers, who persecuted educated and cultured people. The Italian ambassador in Tirana, Ottaviano Koch, wrote in one of his reports sent to Rome, that Albanians coming home from Italy are shifted to the complete margin of the local life. (...) To be an educated person in Albania means to confine oneself to misery. [Смирнова Н. Д. (1974).]

Of course SVEA was not interested solely in the Albanian youth and its education. Economy interested it to a bigger degree. And in this field the Italians could note the biggest success, since they managed to impose on Albania an almost complete economic dictate. Italian capital and Italian experts almost unchallenged controlled the Albanian economy, and maintained it in permanent dependency on metropolitan Italy.

Rome's political and economical influence growing daily instilled Zogu with more and more worries. However, the royal worries mean nothing when the welfare and security of the kingdom is at stake. Meanwhile king's freedom of manoeuvre was none. Little malices dispensed from time to time to the Rome's representatives or their Albanian cronies were in fact all the anti-Italian policy the king of Albanians could exercise. It was not enough to defend the country, but it was enough to lower Zogu's ratings in Rome. In witness whereof the characteristics given to the Albania's ruler by Ottaviano Koch: How could that megalomaniac, who received his kingdom from our hands, think that he would gain moral authority among his people through igniting in them xenophobic hatred? [Смирнова Н. Д. (1974).]

Although Zogu did not like the Italians, and the Italians did not like Zogu, the life was going on. In 1936 in Tirana was signed a consecutive Italo-Albanian pact. In exchange for a huge credit to Albania it provided for very significant concessions in the country's economy and finances. The Italians obtained the right to control the state budget, as well as building fortifications in the city and port of Vlora (Valona). Moreover this pact obliged Albania to reduce the army's establishments to 6000 men, and dismiss all the foreign (of course apart from Italian) military advisers, which meant in fact disarmament of the country. With such an agreement at hand the Italians augmented their political, military and economical penetration of Albania. Many Albanian factories, offices, companies, and institutes got Italian advisers and experts, whose opinions could not be ignored. In the shrinking Albanian army and virtually non-existent navy swarmed officers in Italian uniforms. On the seacoast around Vlora Italian engineers were building fortifications, in which were deployed Italian infantry and artillerymen. Italian staff officers attached to the supreme command of the Albanian army assured Mussolini that in case of an armed conflict between Italy and Albania, her forces would not pose any threat. After all the game for Albania, played since 1918, was coming to its finale. The last cards had been dealt, and the last decisions had been made.

The Italian Foreign Office eventually approved the plan of the military occupation of Albania at the end of 1938. After the official visit paid in Tirana by the Italian foreign minister count Galeazzo Ciano, Rome made the decision that the occupation would take place within a year. The plan was to be realized quickly, because a new factor had emerged on the horizon of the Italian Balkan policy - Germany. It was the rivalry with Germany for the influence in the Balkans, which greatly sped up the entry of the Italian troops to Albania. Ciano himself confirmed it in his diaries, as he noted on 10 February 1939:

Great resentment concerning the will of Germany to put its hands on the Albanian oil. The evidence comes from an official communication received by Attolico. I called Mackensen and informed him that we considered Albania just like another Italian province, and that German intervention would create a strong resentment in Italian public opinion. This fact also proves that the Albanian boil will come to head in a short time. The Serbians have spoken. King Zog is alarmed and very much agitated. Some move could be made in order to oppose our action. [Ciano G. (2001).]

Next day Ciano received the German ambassador in Rome, Hans Georg von Mackensen, and informed him about the Italian engagement in Albania as well as warned that Berlin's attempts to turn Albania into a German sphere of influence would not be tolerated. He did not try to conceal his anger and disappointment. And there were reasons for disappointment. For years the Italians had worked to augment their influence in Albania, and when they had already controlled almost unchallenged her economy, administration, political and state apparatus; when they had already got to every place where they had to get in order to control effectively every sphere of the country's life - then suddenly came a dangerous rival. In 1938 Rome stood before the choice: to harvest militarily and politically the ripe fruits of their policy, or to wait for a more convenient opportunity, while the procrastination would be coupled with the risk that the Albanian fruit would fall in the mouth of a more aggressive and unscrupulous predator - hitlerite Germany.